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21 March 2013

We grow accustomed to the Dark –

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When light is put away
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye

A Moment We uncertain step
For newness of the night
Then fit our Vision to the Dark
And meet the Road erect

And so of larger Darkness
Those Evenings of the Brain
When not a Moon disclose a sign
Or Star come out within

The Bravest grope a little
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead
But as they learn to see

Either the Darkness alters
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight
And Life steps almost straight.
                                                                    F428 (1862)  J419

This is one of Dickinson’s most accessible poems, I think. The first stanzas discuss how we adapt to night after the light of day or lamps. Her image is of leaving a neighbor’s house at night. The neighbor holds up the lamp as she bids farewell. It then takes “A Moment” for our eyes adapt to the dark. At first our steps are “uncertain,” but then we see better and can walk along the road confident and “erect.”
        I feel a bit sad reading this for despite the many benefits of electricity, we have lost most of our darkness and with it the wonder of the night sky – as well as the ruminations that seem to blossom in the dark. For most of us night is not dark until we lie down to sleep.
         In the third stanza Dickinson introduces the other half of the metaphor. Just as the day has both light and dark, so too do our hearts and minds. We have evenings of intense darkness where the moon and stars are occluded by clouds. Likewise, there are “Evenings of the Brain,” uncharted territory not illuminated by what we have been taught or what we have learned. There is nothing there we recognize as familiar signposts to tell us what to think or feel. Elders and self-help books typically advise us to shun thoughts that run this way and instead turn to practical or happy thoughts, or perhaps to read from the Bible or other book of guidance.

        That unknown mental and spiritual domain is a “larger – Darkness.” That is where our great poets and philosophical explorers venture while the rest of us pursue our hobbies or just relax. Dickinson spends time in this darkness and most of her most evocative, ambiguous, and challenging poetry comes from there. Here she gives us the rather humorous image of “The Bravest,” those hardy souls who go out into that larger darkness, groping along, only to “hit a Tree / Directly in the Forehead.” I guess we shouldn’t smile, but I think she means us to.
         But then something happens – either the inner sight adapts to the dark or, more interestingly, the Darkness adapts to us. And just as the friend leaving the neighbor’s light can soon walk “erect” on the road, so too the explorer of the dark can walk “almost straight,” can learn to come and go safely – and can still function well enough in daily life that while others might find them eccentric or “touched,” they don’t find them mad.


  1. There’s a nice write up at on this poem. It links also to a delightful short video produced by Harvard’s poetry of Perception series.

  2. Here you go...

    1. The reader’s delivery alone, without its meaning, is worth a listen. Add ED’s meaning, and it’s poetry at its finest.

  3. Checking out this Brainpickings (now TheMarginalian) video of this poem led me to another Marginalian video, on the very poem from which "prowling bee" comes. The video beautifully uses Emily's Herbarium and animates it. I love the idea that the prowling bee is what the flower must "escape". Perhaps you cheekily named your blog this because, by extension, Dickinson's poetry will always just escape us and therefore keep its efflorescence? I love it.

  4. Also, thanks for pointing out the observation here, "or, more interestingly, the Darkness adapts to us." That caused me to go back and see those lines again and think about them anew. Even in the accessible poems there is so often something a league deeper to dig.

  5. When we lose the light of our life, whether a spouse after a lifetime together or the love of our life after an intense relationship, we at first can’t see our way. Some may die of despair, as often happens to an elderly surviving spouse, but some survivors bravely find a way to move on despite colliding with a tree or two. Those are the lucky ones whose intrinsic or extrinsic resources, or more likely both, rescue them from utter darkness. ED used poetry this way after Wadsworth "left the land". (ED's second letter to Higginson, 25 April 1862, L261)

  6. TPB blog software has forgotten my name. Preceding comment by Larry B.